Crane Lake is an outpost so to speak, it is the jumping off point for many fishing and canoe trips to the BWCAW, Quetico Provincial Park, and Canadian fly-in fishing trips. It was once noted as the busiest seaplane base in the world. That is no longer the case as the customs office in Crane Lake has now closed. Travelers and pilots check into the US by logging in to iPads and accessing the CDP website. Crane Lake is also the southern entrance to Voyageurs National Park.
My favorite place to bird in Crane Lake is the Vermilion River Gorge Hiking Trail. The habitat is varied and that makes for a wide variety of bird species to cohabitate. The trail from the town of Crane Lake goes through a mixed forest which holds many Wood-warblers during migration and into the nesting season. Young Balsam trees hold breeding Magnolia Warblers. About mid-way down the trail, you enter a mature Aspen forest with a scrubby undergrowth. Many warblers, including Mourning Warbler, and White-throated Sparrows nest in the area. Further down the trail you enter a lower part of the forest, it’s not necessarily wet, but I always find Yellow-bellied Flycatcher here in the summer. Winter wrens sing throughout the season. In the dense scrub of the Moose Maple shrub (aka Mountain Maple) there are numerous Canada Warblers that stay around to nest. At the end of the trail before reaching the rapids of the river gorge, there is a large grove of Red and White Pines. The birds that prefer this coniferous habitat flourish here, Blue-headed Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Pine Warbler, and once I found a Brown Creeper nest. Across the river I have heard the beautiful song of the Wood Thrush. In the fall I often run into migrating Black-backed Woodpeckers. It is just a really special place that I think birds stop at when they encounter the big lakes that lie to the north in the Voyageurs National Park.
The other place where I go birding frequently is the Echo Trail. The Echo Trail (county road 116) is a well-maintained gravel road that runs from Buyck to Ely, it is 52 miles long. About 10 miles from the Buyck end going east from County Road 24, I like to go to Lake Jeanette. The small USFS campground (about 20 sites) holds a surprising number of birds. There are Wood-warblers in the trees, Least Flycatchers, Cedar Waxwings, and White-throated Sparrows in abundance. The hiking trail that heads south through a small bog is a favorite of mine. There are pitcher plants and sundews along the trail and the expected boreal species reside here, Blue-headed Vireo, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Junco, Lincoln Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Canada Jay. Back out on the road and just to the east of the bog is a marshy wetland. Alder Flycatcher and American Bittern along with the expected species that live in a marsh are found here. It is like a mini microclimate in the area. I have seen Moose and Spruce Grouse with chicks around here. 15 years ago, the bog used to host Connecticut Warbler, but unfortunately, I have not found any here in recent years.
Heading east on the Echo Trail is another road going south, the Norway Trail. I have found Spruce Grouse along this road especially towards the end, about 6 miles, where there are more Jack Pine.
Further east around the Moose River entry point I have found Red Crossbills, although not always consistent, it seems at sometimes they are around Jack Pine trees.
Then my favorite place is the whole region is the Portage River. I have found that Spruce Grouse like the Jack Pines in this area. In the pine forest there is the wildflower Trailing Arbutus and when their flowers bloom is when the Spruce Grouse start to perform their flight display. Early in the morning around dawn is the best time to observe the displaying male Spruce Grouse. I like to set up a trail cam in one area where the Spruce Grouse consistently display. I have explored this area and noticed that closer to the river is more boreal and I have found Boreal Chickadees flitting around nest holes. Then hiking just to the west, a little way, there is birch and an alder swamp – here I have found Black-capped Chickadees excavating nest holes in rotten birch trees. There are Woodcock in the alder swamps on the other side of the rocky ridge and you can hear the call of the American Bittern.
Heading west out of Crane Lake towards Elephant Lake is very different habitat. Logging is much more evident here and the forest is younger. Going west on Forest road 203 can be good for Golden-winged Warbler. I have found many here in the young Aspen forests. These disturbed areas are good for Mourning Warblers and Chestnut-sided Warblers and many others too. Ruffed Grouse, Wilson’s Snipe, Ring-necked Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes reside in the numerous beaver ponds and wetlands. Trumpeter Swans are numerous in this area, a pair with cygnets can be found on most beaver ponds – they have been really successful. Around Elephant Lake is prime habitat for Northern Waterthrush and there are lots of them singing early in the summer season.
One bird that cannot be found around the boreal forest of Crane Lake is the Baltimore Oriole, but only 10 miles to the west, I have seen a Baltimore Oriole gathering nesting material. I’ve also found Warbling Vireo here, unheard of at Crane Lake!
The one thing I can say about Crane Lake is that in a short amount of time and distance, one can bird habitats that are totally different from each other and are easily accessed by forest roads and hiking trails.